Word count: 1,392
Most mornings on the Provo are foggy—at least that’s how I remember them. It was the kind of fog that feels wet and cold on your cheeks, a dense, snug fog. I fished the river many times when fly fishing was new to me, but there are ghosts in the fog now, at the edge of sight.
I was in the middle of a ninety-nine day fishing trip—I don’t remember now why I didn’t make it an even hundred—fishing eight- to twelve-hours a day, staying in the river until it seemed like the banks were moving instead of the water. Thirty-years ago, I fished with more urgency than I do now that I live in the Intermountain West and good trout water is only a thirty-minute drive in any direction. I fished hard, couldn’t get enough of it. I was so focused on trying new techniques and catching fish that I sometimes failed to see the beauty around me.
It was a Spartan expedition. I slept on a small mattress in the bed of my truck under a camper-shell. I had a propane heater, camp-stove, and lantern; a cooler that I restocked once a week with black bread, black forest ham, and black Irish beer; my books, journals, fly-tying kit, and fishing gear; and a couple of changes of clothes.
I made friends with Mike, the owner of a convenience store in the canyon where, when I got reesty, he let me use the shower and bathroom in the back of the store. As a way of thanking him I took his twelve-year-old son fishing every Saturday.
The road through the canyon was a tortuous two-lane then. One of the businesses that thrived in the canyon was a quaint restaurant called The Chateau. I would have breakfast there a couple of times a week, and when the cold and sleet drove me from the river, I’d retreat there and sit at the counter shivering until the hot coffee and clam chowder warmed me back from the edge of hypothermia. The waitress was from back East. She had bounded around the country until finally landing there. When I asked her why she ended up on that river, in that canyon, she said that God had told her to come there. And I believed her.
Each morning I drove to a vantage point above the river where I would build a pot of coffee and watch the Sun slowly reveal the river below. Sometimes the river would be hidden, and I couldn’t tell if I was seeing fog or looking down on clouds. I felt suspended, reluctant to move and break that spell. On those days, I would sit silently sipping coffee until the Sun burned off the mist before I strung up my rod and headed down the slope. Yes, God would tell people to come there, to that place. It was a place that people would need, a place that could heal.
One cold, wet afternoon, I stood in stinging sleet marveling at the way the banks seemed to flow by as the current tugged at my thighs and washed gravel from under my boots. I was contemplating the delicate balance of chemicals that separate the sane from the rest of us as I took a pull from my, then, ever-present flask. (This was before the pain in my side forced me to rethink the hard-drinking lifestyle of my outdoor heroes, before I concluded that the outcome could well be shoving a shotgun in my mouth and going atomic, a la Hemingway.) I was beginning to get the shivers, so I started busting through the willows, headed for my truck and some of the Chateau’s hot chowder and coffee.
When I popped out onto the trail, I was surprised to see a small car parked there. The windows were fogged up and I figured it was a couple looking for privacy, but as I got closer I could hear sobbing coming from inside.
It was sobbing that, whether you’re the one doing the sobbing or the one hearing the sobbing, shakes your soul. The sobs were punctuated by exclamations of “Oh God!” and “Please!” They were the sobs of a young woman and they had their usual effect on me—I stood frozen to the ground, helpless and confused, wanting it to stop.
I was a young man then, still operating on the grammar-school rhetoric that little girls were made of sugar and spice and everything nice. I still thought it my duty to rescue damsels in distress. This was before that kind of thinking had me leaning into a few left hooks, before holding a door open or calling a woman a lady would get you branded a chauvinist, before I embraced the loss of feminine mystique and began preferring the company of a good Retriever.
I noticed a pile of cigarette butts under the driver’s side window as I approached. I knocked on the window and asked if everything was ok and if she needed help. The window rolled down to reveal a pretty young lady. Her short black hair—not today’s short, where gender is called into question, but more of a 1920’s bob—was pasted to her lightly freckled cheeks and forehead. Bitter tears rinsed mascara from her hard blue eyes.
“Are you ok? Do you need help?” I repeated.
She asked me if I had a cigarette, so I dug a fresh pack from my coat pocket and handed it to her, telling her to keep it.
Her backseat was stacked with clothes and household items and it was obvious that she was living out of her car. “This isn’t a good place for you. It gets cold up here at night,” I told her.
“I have blankets. I’ll be fine,” she replied.
“No, I’m talkin’ blue-ass cold,” I said. She smiled at that, and I would have done anything to keep that smile on her face.
An empty potato-chip bag and Coke bottle lay on the seat next to her, so I asked if I could get her anything from the store. She thanked me but said she would be ok. “Look,” I said, “I know the people who run the store up the road. If you need anything, go there and get it and I’ll take care of it.” I pulled a twenty from my pocket, handed it to her, told her to get something to eat, and headed for my truck.
I stopped at the store and told Mike about the girl and asked him to run a tab for her in my name.
I checked on her the next day and saw that she had organized her things and her clothes were now neatly folded in the backseat. Every time I checked on her, I could see her making progress. Later that month, I noticed a newspaper on her dash and could see she had circled places for rent, too, I noticed some brochures from the local college. She had a plan.
She often joined me for morning coffee and we’d sit on the tailgate of my truck, smoke cigarettes, and watch the valley unveil from the fog’s blank canvas.
The last time I seen her, the car was empty and she was taking care of herself, fixing her hair, wearing makeup. We talked for a long time that day. She told me she had found a job at a high-dollar restaurant and was going back to school and that she had rented an apartment. When I went by the store that night, Mike handed me a twenty that the girl had left for me, and I knew then she’d come that day to say goodbye.
They widened the road into a four-lane a few years later; the Chateau, the little store, and the place where we talked and laughed went away. A sadness comes over me when I pass through there now and think of that dusky-haired, blue-eyed girl.
Our last conversation was one that I look back on with regret, punctuated by long pauses that left me feeling like something more needed to be said, a conversation that stays on replay when I sit alone on the banks of a high country river, wrapped in a cold, cozy fog.
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